The King in Winter | By Michael Cohen
“It doesn’t look much like a teapot to me,” said my wife as we stood gazing at the constellation of Sagittarius low in Tucson’s southern sky. “And it certainly doesn’t look like an archer. I think it looks sort of like a golfer with one foot in a sand trap.”
I couldn’t see the golfer, but I certainly saw the problem. Few of the constellations look much like they are “supposed” to—that is, as the Greeks and Romans saw them and named them. Leo is a spectacular exception, with its curve of stars arching up from Algieba and defining the maned head of the lion and its hindquarters the triangle of stars ending in Denebola on the trailing or eastward side. Cygnus looks enough like a swan to be plausible, if you can make out the faint double star Albireo marking its head. And Aquila, with a little imagination, can be made to seem like an eagle flying by Cygnus on an opposite course along the Milky Way. When you can see the whole of Scorpius—which is rare above 35° of latitude—it does bear some resemblance to a scorpion, but Draco looks more like a snake than a dragon, and the Ursas, major and minor, are not, let’s face it, very ursine in shape. The arbitrariness of the shapes people have seen in the stars is perhaps best illustrated by the part of Ursa Major that Americans see as a big dipper and Europeans see as a plow.
Constellations, 1856 (Wikimedia)
H. A. Rey’s 1952 book The Stars: A New Way to See Them introduced a simplified way of connecting the major stars in each constellation that was so effective it has been adopted by many star guides, including Sky & Telescope’s monthly Sky Chart and the magazine’s illustrated observing articles. But aside from the stick figures of the Twins and Virgo and the ones already mentioned, Rey’s diagrams don’t really animate constellation shapes. The connected stars show relatively abstract shapes in the sky. The observer still has to provide the imagination.
My son Dan did that for me one winter night when we were looking at Orion. “I don’t know how people see a hunter there,” he said. “It seems obvious to me what pattern those stars make,” he said, striking a pose with his right arm high in the air, left hand off to the side, hips tilted and knees flexed. “It’s Elvis!” I said. “How could I have missed it before?” Perhaps the fact that Dan makes his living as a guitarist and songwriter affects the way he looks at the stars, but I know I’ll never see that constellation the same way again. The next time you’re out in the winter dark, on a clear night, look for Elvis, his tilted pelvis accented by a rhinestone belt, Betelgeuse providing a red “ON” light in the microphone he’s holding in his right hand.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Michael Cohen writes personal essays that have appeared in NER, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife Katharine on the Blood River in Kentucky when they are not in the Tucson Mountains. He has a website and a blog.